By Jack Taylor
Deputy Politics Editor
Last Saturday, August 25th, the United States lost John McCain in his battle with an aggressive brain cancer. He was the last of his kind in the Senate, holding his own ideology but believing in the principles of respect and bipartisanship. Looking back on his political life it is clear to see that most, if not all, politicians today could learn at least something from his 31-year career.
McCain put his support to policy, not personalities. He was known as a bipartisan figure in Washington, who wasn’t afraid to work with Democrats. He worked with Democrat Russ Feingold on the 2002 Campaign Reform Act, used to regulate aspects of the campaign. Again, in 2005 he was part of the bipartisan ‘gang of 14’ that averted a Congressional meltdown. Their negotiating an agreement prevented Bush’s proposed use of the ‘nuclear option’, an obscure technique that would have put an end to the Democrat’s threat of filibustering (legally obstructing progress through the Senate) to prevent his judicial appointments.
Of course he wasn’t always bipartisan, McCain was still a deeply conservative figure that opposed abortion and gun control. McCain mostly voted against Obama, his 2008 presidential opponent, in Democratic legislation such as Obamacare and the 2009 stimulus package. However, even during Obama’s presidency he continued to be bipartisan, joining 7 fellow Senators in 2013 in an attempt to introduce measures to help undocumented immigrants.
Although loyal to his party, as the Republicans of the past had been, he wasn’t bound by ideology. He’d look at every issue and make a judgment respectively, as he famously did in voting against the Republican repeal of Obamacare. He knew the limits of partisan politics – it alienates the opposing party so that gridlock occurs. During the government shutdown crisis of 2013 he said, “Republicans have to understand we have lost this battle, that we would not be able to win because we were demanding something that was not achievable”.
If we look into today’s politics, both in the US and the UK, we see highly divisive issues and polarisation, let alone any bipartisan agreements. Brexit has reshaped our parliament into a mainly single-issue battleground, whilst Trump’s policy base is hard for most Democrats to find any agreement with. We need more politicians from all sides of politics to follow his example; for the interest of the parties as much as our nations.
“We have been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to kind a way without help from across the aisle. We are getting nothing done”.
John McCain, 2018
McCain said it himself in one of his last major speeches in the Senate. “We have been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. We are getting nothing done”. There are always moderate politicians in parties, but not as many politicians like McCain, able to be principled and ideological but take each issue at face value.
The Senator wasn’t only bipartisan, he was also respectful. He never resorted to Donald Trump’s name-calling, nor Theresa May’s attacks on the opposition as a “coalition of chaos”. This came to international attention during the 2008 Presidential election.
At a campaign rally a women began to ask a question by saying “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab”. McCain reacted with a shake of the head and replied with “No ma’m. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreement with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about”.
McCain was a man that wanted to be judged on his record and his policy, and viewed as a trustworthy figure. He didn’t want to win by running a negative campaign or becoming an entertaining personality. This is a feature lacking in our political leaders today. The population both here and in the US would be more receptive to a politician with policy and a track record than the personality politics we see at play now.
This is not to paint McCain as a perfect politician. There have been scandals, leaked memos and some negative campaigning from staff. However, McCain’s biggest scandal proved to actually show his character as a public figure.
In 1989 he was caught up in a political donation scandal. Charles Keating, the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, had donated a total of $1.3 million to McCain and 4 Democratic Senators. The Lincoln Savings and Loan Association had collapsed, leaving the federal government to pick up a bill of $3.4 billion, prompting investigation. This investigation was subsequently halted.
The call of corruption was made towards McCain and the other Senators, the thinking being that Keating contacted these influential men in order to stop the investigation. While the Senate Ethics Committee cleared him for improper conduct, what he did in the aftermath is a lesson for politicians who find themselves caught up in scandal.
McCain owned up to his wrongdoing. He apologised, took criticism and sought to rebuild his reputation. A reporter at the time, David Wallace, wrote of following McCain on long town hall meetings held under a constant fear that his reputation would never recover.
Instead of hiding from the issue, he took campaign finance head on. He was almost a paradox – a conservative politician that took on the laws that allowed his party to flourish – but always working in the best interests of his country. He failed on some counts, thanks to his Republican colleague Mitch McConnell, but succeeded in others. We didn’t see Donald Trump admit to his scandals- where was the apology for the Hollywood Access tapes? Could we have seen Amber Rudd or Theresa May make serious amends for the Windrush scandal?
All those in public office could learn from his attitude to politics. In the end, we’d all benefit.
The US Senate has lost a unique figure. Politics as a whole has lost a role model. You can disagree with his political stance, but you have to respect his beliefs in bipartisanship, respect and self-awareness that made him the maverick politician he was. All those in public office could learn from his attitude to politics. In the end, we’d all benefit.
Featured Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
First Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Second Image by Levan Ramishvili via Flickr